Thanks for Microsoft Singapore for providing the review units for this review.
This review is written for graphic designers and visual content creators, such as those create digital art, edit photos and videos for a living. I hope this review can help you decide which device is more suitable for your workflow.
Both the Microsoft Surface Laptop and Surface Book 2 are impressive products from Microsoft. I've been using them extensively for two weeks and I've been quite satisfied by their performance. Depending on your workflow, one might be more suitable than the other.
Let me give you the bottom line upfront first. The Surface Book 2 tablet mode is great for drawing and writing on for extended period of time. So if you see yourself using the tablet mode often, Surface Book 2 is the more appropriate choice. Otherwise, the Surface Laptop can do almost everything the Surface Book 2 can do, except gaming (for the SB2 models with graphics card).
That's the main thing I wanted to say for this review. You can stop reading now if you want to. But if you want to find out more about the other differences, read on.
We'll ignore the model with Intel Core m3 because that's under powered.
With the Surface Laptop, you only have the option of dual core Intel i5-7200U (2.5Ghz to 3.1Ghz) and i7-7660U (2.5Ghz to 4Ghz). Performance of the i5 and i7 are pretty similar unless you run the i7 extensively, such as when exporting video. But even so, I found out that the processors never really reach the 100% optimization. So if you happen to do more video work, then perhaps the i7 is the better choice but don't expect to see a significant performance difference just because the i7 can boost to 4Ghz over the i5's 3.1GHz. In real life, the turbo boost difference is not going to be noticeable unless you're someone who, like me, is work and export photos and videos every single day.
With the Surface Book 2, main performance difference comes from the dual core i5-7300U (2.6Ghz to 3.5Ghz) vs quad core i7-8650U (1.9Ghz to 4.2Ghz). The extra cores is going to save you time for processor intensive tasks such as exporting photos, video and 3D renders. Whether you will benefit from the quad core processor really depends on the app you use, and whether they can utilize all the available cores.
With Adobe Lightroom, I exported 100 RAW files. Here are the timings:
- Mac Pro 2013 Xeon quad core 3.7Ghz - 3 min 17s
- Surface Laptop Intel Core i5-7200U (2.5-3.1Ghz) - 8 min 26s
- Surface Book 2 Intel Core i5-7300U (2.6 to 3.5 GHz) - 8min 57s
- Surface Book 2 Intel Core i7-8650U (1.9 to 4.2 GHz) - 3 min 49s
If you feel like you're squeezed for time every day, perhaps the quad core route is the way to go.
The price the Surface Book 2 is selling at, you can definitely find more powerful and faster laptops. But you may not be able to get those screens to detach, or the screen drawing performance may not be as good compared to the Surface Book 2.
Having dedicated graphics isn't that important for graphic design work especially with the performance of integrated graphics getting pretty good nowadays.
It may help if you do a lot of 3D work and if so, the bottleneck of the system is actually the processors. The i7 quad core processor on the Surface Book 2 does not have a high clock speed. I've used laptops from two years ago that can render 3D several times faster than the SB2's i7.
If you play games, yeah, it makes more sense to get the graphics card. Or maybe you should just get the XBox or Playstation.
Surface Laptop has a 13.5-inch screen that supports 2256 × 1504 resolution (201PPI). Surface Book 2's 13.5-inch packs in more pixels with a 3000×2000 resolution (267PPI) and the 15-inch model has a 3240×2160 resolution (260PPI).
All three screens have high resolution for the screen size. Even with the lowest resolution Surface Laptop, I could barely notice the individual pixels in text that I read. All three are sharp.
Resolution matters in some apps. Shown above is Adobe Lightroom. The user interface looks big enough on all the three high resolution screen. At the default fit-to-screen zoom, there's isn't much difference between the three at what you can see.
The difference between the resolution becomes more obvious when you zoom in. With the 15-inch Surface Book 2, at 100% zoom, you get to see the photo larger and you get to see more of the photo because the resolution is higher. Both Surface Book 2 models show more of the photo compared to the Surface Laptop.
The higher resolution allows you to see more details, and allows you to see them sharp without pixelation. This reduces the need to zoom in or pan to see more or cropped areas of the photo.
The lower resolution of the Surface Laptop is not a deal breaker for me. That resolution is still sharp enough. Personally I have no issues working with any of the three screens.
Both Surface Laptop and Surface Book 2 are well built and feel extremely solid.
From the top, the 13.5-inch models look almost similar in size. The 15-inch is about 1cm larger on all sides. Weight of the Surface Laptop is 1.25kg while the 13.5-inch SB2 is 1.53kg and the 15-inch is 1.9kg. So the Surface Books are significantly heavier but still quite manageable even if you need to bring them around frequently.
Due to the design of the SB2's hinge, the Surface Books are much thicker then the Surface Laptop. When the SB2 screen is closed, there's a gap between the screen and keyboard. Much of the thickness comes from the SB2's screen which is also a tablet.
Surface Laptop only has two ports, a full size USB 3 and a mini-DisplayPort. On the Surface Book 2, there are two full size USB 3, a SD card reader and a USB type C (not thunderbolt 3).
I use the SD card reader all the time so having one in the body is very convenient. I also connect my laptop to a larger monitor and rely on the mini DisplayPort so with the SB2, I now need a mini DIsplayPort to USB C adapter.
Surface Laptop uses an aluminium body which has a smoother surface compared to the magnesium alloy body on the Surface Book 2 which has is more matte and has a slightly more textured surface.
The Alcantara fabric-like keyboard area is nice to rest the palm on but can collect dirt and grease. It's not as easy to wipe and clean compared to a metallic surface.
Typing experience feels great on both but after using the Surface Book 2, the Surface Laptop keyboard feels hollow, relatively speaking.
Comparison tables sourced from Wikipedia
Let's ignore the models with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage because those aren't good enough for graphic design work. You can go over 4GB RAM with just Photoshop and a web browser with several tabs opened. With a 128GB SSD storage, you'll probably be left with around 97GB after installing Windows 10 and the various software you use. How many times can you import a 16GB SD card? Not many.
All the other models with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage are all good enough for graphic design. So which model will suit you comes down to your budget and workflow.
If you need the tablet form factor, then it has to be the more expensive Surface Book 2. If you need quad core processors, you can only get that with Surface Book 2.
The cheapest SB2 is probably the US $1499 with the i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB storage and Intel HD 620. This model is only US $200 more than the similarly specced Surface Laptop.
For illustrators, being able to draw directly on the screen is incredibly convenient. You can now sketch drafts directly on the computer which means you save time from not drawing on paper and scanning. The workflow difference is the main thing that separates the Surface Laptop from the 2-in-1 Surface Book. You'll know which device you'll need just by examining your current workflow.
The Microsoft Surface products are not cheap.
The Surface Laptop may be well build but it's still a laptop and hence competes with many other competitively priced laptops that perform just as well, if not faster. If you have a taste for really well designed laptops, I've not doubt you'll love the Surface Laptop. This is Microsoft's equivalent of Apple's 13.3 inch Macbook Pro.
As for the Surface Book 2. Do you see yourself using the tablet mode often? If yes, then you're going to benefit from the 2-in-1 functionality. That's the selling point essentially.
The compromise of both devices is the processor which in my opinion could be much faster given the price. Having said that, the specifications are more than enough for graphic design, creating digital art, editing photos and 1080P videos.
Ultimately, only you can decide which is more suitable for you and whether it's worth your money.
That's all for my review. If you happen to be using these devices for creating visual content, I would love to hear from your thoughts in the comments section.